Hirschman and The Romantic Spirit

Albert Hirschman, 1915-2012

When we think of the romantics, at least in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, we often consider careful lovers in lace and ruffles, lovers primarily of love itself, as a noble, worthy aesthetic. We think of the poetry of Wordsworth (‘I wandered lonely as a cloud…’), Shelley (‘O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being’) and Coleridge (‘In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A Stately pleasure-dome decree…’), or of Edmund Burke’s concepts of the sublime and the beautiful. Situated in late eighteenth century Europe, however, and juxtaposed with Continental romanticism, the picture becomes altogether more political, theological, and – though fractured into myriad interpretations – more substantial. It becomes, in essence, a reaction to the Enlightenment, to the new scientism, a rejection of dogma.

It is perhaps because it is a reaction against something rather than a proposal for something that it defies a positivist characterization: as a necessarily contingent opposition, it is defined more in terms of what it is not. The word romance in the OED is interpreted variously as overblown, flowery, euphuistic (of literature or language); fabled, fictitious, non-existent (of a story or statement); or quixotic, sentimental, idealistic (of ideas). In addition, the OED – struggling to settle on a single definition – extends to consider the adjectival romantic as ‘marked by an emphasis on feeling, individuality, and passion rather than classical form and order, and typically preferring grandeur, picturesqueness, or naturalness to finish and proportion…’

Romanticism was reactionary in its politics, but apolitical in its realisation. There were no romantic politicians, no romantic leaders, in the same way as one could highlight leaders of the enlightenment, in politics, art and science. Romanticism was anarchic, in the truest sense of the term, and rebellious for that. It looked internally at the human spirit, and externally at the natural world, focusing upon humanity in the cosmos, rather than the individual in society.

Hirschman’s The Passions and the Interests, a re-evaluation of capitalist origins, reassesses the Enlightenment as less of a revolution in thinking, and sees it more as an endogenous progression of human affairs. Taking his cue from Montesquieu (Il est heureux pour les hommes d’être dans une situation où pendant que leurs passions leur inspirent la pensée d’être méchants, ils ont pourtant intérêt de ne pas l’être – It is fortunate for men to be in a situation where, while their passions inspire wickedness, their interests forbid such behaviour), Hirschman rekindles the debate on the merits of capitalist laissez-faire over moralising criticism of avarice. This was not quite the full-on Hayekian denial of values, but rather a defence of commerce as useful guard rails for the morals of wider society.

The romantic movement deserves to be considered more seriously as an intellectual, considered position, rather than a flighty, non-conformist fringe group. At a time of hard reason, romanticism was a spiritual awakening; with a substantially Protestant ascendancy in Europe, and its attendant Weberian ethic, theology was about absolute truth and a committed, unyielding way. The imprecision of romanticism, the breadth of its questions, denied mankind her agency, her free will. Martin Schütze called romanticism was ‘…in extreme consistency, subjective monism.’ Fundamentally, monism rejected Descartian dualism, and the romantics embraced Spinoza’s conception of the world as a single substance – we will deal with Spinoza in a later post. Romanticism therefore was not merely unmanageable, and non-commercial, but it was heretical.

Modern capitalism needed as its foundation an arbitrary infrastructure of agreed approximations. A stake needed to be placed in the ground, men needed to agree that it was the right stake, in the right place, and from that one position of absolute agreement, that one point of absolute truth, that unifying political theology, the modern world could be constructed. It has been remarkably successful.

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